Chef Summit at Sunday River

As Maine magazine’s food editor, I have the good fortune to taste a lot of fantastic food and attend some fun events. The Chef Summit, held at Sunday River for the second year, is one of my favorites. It’s great to see some of Maine’s best chefs all cooking in one room. I love watching them interact with each other, sometimes as old friends, sometimes as new acquaintances.

This year’s Chef Summit on January 28 included Pancake Cook-Off that morning. I was thrilled when Rory Strunk of O’Maine Studios, organizer of the Chef Summit, asked me to judge the contest. Wild blueberries are one of Maine’s most abundant natural resources, and each contestant was tasked with using them in an innovative way. Seven competitors gathered at the Foggy Goggle to cook up their most creative and flavorful renditions of my favorite breakfast, complete with Sunday River’s own maple syrup. Skiers, looking to carb-load before a day on the slopes, joined in to taste each offering. Chef Steve Sicinski of the Nonantum Resort in Kennebunkport made a delicious gluten-free pancake with a combination of coconut, hazelnut, and oat flours and topped with matcha whipped cream and a sprinkle of what he called, “a little something-something” that turned out to be roasted white chocolate crumble. Chef Dan Dumont of the Black Point Inn went in a more savory direction, with a Maine potato pancake topped with smoked sea trout caviar, whipped maple crème fraîche and pickled blueberries. It was a very elegant offering that would have been lovely with a glass of Champagne at cocktail hour. But how about beer for breakfast? Chef David Squillante of Shipyard Brewing Company macerated blueberries in Sea Dog blueberry ale and used them as a garnish for his traditional johnnycakes, a cornmeal-based pancake. These two, along with chef Wendy Benney of Sodeho tied for “most innovative wild blueberry pancake” prize. I was glad to see a team from ProStart, a culinary arts program for high school students, made up of students from Portland Area Arts and Technology High School and Northern Penobscot Tech Region III. Their lemon pancake with blueberry-bourbon sauce was topped with lavender-infused Gifford’s vanilla ice cream. I am not one to turn down ice cream for breakfast, and apparently all the judges agreed, giving the ProStart team the prize for Best Flavor.

Late afternoon, we pull up to the Jordan Hotel for the tasting event to find Arlin Smith of Big Tree Hospitality unloading his truck. Chefs Mike Wiley and Chris Wilcox are bringing in containers of lobster meat to make Eventide Oyster Company’s famous brown butter lobster rolls. They’re stationed alongside partner Andrew Taylor, who cooks up a rich and spicy lamb khao soi. The tasting event included some from Maine’s top restaurants, offering their best dishes. The chefs were provided ingredients from sponsors, including Oakhurst Dairy, North Star Sheep Farm, Ducktrap River of Maine, Wyman’s of Maine, Sysco, and others.

Before the doors open to the crowd, I chat with the chefs and watch them prepare. Kerry Altiero of Cafe Miranda in Rockland seems to be having the most fun, as he sets up a kitschy display that includes flashing lights and a stuffed pig wearing an Elvis outfit. Even his food is fun, but seriously delicious. He’s combined Ducktrap smoked mussels with a warm chili broth and lots of fresh jalapeno, cilantro, and lime. Matt Ginn of Evo Kitchen and Bar in Portland describes his dish to me as simply “spicy potatoes.” But Ginn’s food is never simple, and he turns Maine Yukon Gold potatoes into a sophisticated, complex dish with lots of fresh turmeric, whole mustard seed, and other spices. Aerated yogurt foam with sumac balances the heat. Harding Lee Smith of the Rooms in Portland and the newly opened Mountain Room at Sunday River is working with baker Sean Doherty on a spiced lamb sausage over lentils, a sophisticated and hearty plate.

“This is a celebration of food in the winter,” Strunk tells me. “It’s a great opportunity for chefs to get out of their kitchens, doing something different.” I find Dana Bullen, president at Sunday River, enjoying squab with wild blueberry maple bourbon sauce from a warm cedar plank, a dish created by Troy Mains of the Harraseeket Inn. “Rory has really surrounded himself with the best of the best here,” Bullen says. “Our team provides the best skiing, and Rory brings the same passion to this event.” Tonight’s guests agree. They played hard on a mild January day on the slopes, and then enjoyed a special taste of Maine in the evening. The Chef Summit brought it all together for the second year. I’m already looking forward to seeing what Strunk and the team have in mind for 2018.

Sunday River Chef Summit | 15 South Ridge Rd. | Newry |